The threat of a million tonnes of highly contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi being discharged into the Pacific Ocean includes the potential environmental and human impacts, but also how a decision by the Japanese government relates to international law. What we conclude is that such a decision poses a direct threat to the marine environment, including that of the jurisdictional waters of the Korean peninsula. As such, Japan would be in breach of its obligations as defined under international environmental law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that Korea government has rights to oppose the discharging in the legal perspective.
The discharge of radioactivity into the marine environment from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will inevitably increase exposure to marine species. The level of exposure depends on multiple variables. The concentrations are of direct relevance to those who may consume them, including marine species, ultimately, humans. The 1.2 million tons of highly contaminated water in nearly 1000 storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant currently has concentrations of radioactive tritium much higher than is permitted under Japanese regulation permissible for discharge into the ocean. Concerns are that the high relative biological effectiveness (RBE) of tritium’s beta radiation, its ability to bind with cell constituents to form organically-bound tritium (OBT) and its short-range beta particle, meaning it can damage DNA.
It is more important to remember that 800,000 tons of this water contains not only tritium but also contains other hazardous radioactive materials, including strontium-90, as a result of the failure of the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) technology operating during the last 9 years. There are 30,000 megaBecquerels of strontium-90 in the storage now which is absorbed by the body in a similar manner to calcium where it increases the risk of developing leukemia cancer. To give some perspective on this amount of strontium-90, it is what an average Pressurized Water Reactor would discharge in its liquid waste every year if it were to operate for 120,000 years, more than half the number of years humans have inhabited the earth. Even more threatening is that these discharges are only a small fraction of the radioactive inventory of what remains at the site. Most strontium-90 still remains in the molten cores at the site, an amount 17.3 million times more than would be released under the Japanese government’s plans for the contaminated water. And there are many other radionuclides present in the contaminated water with even longer half lives – iodine-129 for example is 13 million years.
For South Korea, the impacts of this radiation exposure is of great importance to the fishing communities, the wider population and the Government. The toxic cocktail of radionuclides from Fukushima Daiichi will rapidly disperse through the strong coastal currents along Japan’s Pacific coast, and would enter the East Sea via the East China Sea, including the waters of the Korean peninsula. We know this as a result of sea water sampling following the March 2011 nuclear disaster.
The South Korean government has rightly challenged the Japanese government over its plans for the Fukushima contaminated water, including at the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO). In November 2019 at the IMO they were joined in their opposition by the People’s Republic of China. While the Japanese government is looking to make a decision later this year the actual discharges would not take place for several more years. It is vitally important that the Korean government continue its efforts to protect the marine environment and the health and livelihoods of its citizens, including fishing communities, by challenging in every way possible the plans of the Japanese government.
In addition to the requirements under the IMO, Japan is required to comply with international law that prohibits significant transboundary environmental harm, both to the territory of other States and to areas beyond national jurisdiction. Before any discharge into the Pacific Ocean, Japan is required to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment under Article 206 of UNCLOS. International radio-protection principles require that a decision to increase radioactivity in the environment must be justified, and if there is a viable alternative – in this case long term storage – it cannot be justified.
There is a clear alternative to discharging over 1.2 million tons of highly contaminated into the environment. There never was a justification for further deliberate radioactive pollution of the marine environment from Fukushima Daiichi; and, in the interests of protection of that environment as well as public safety, as well a compliance with its international legal obligations, the only acceptable way forward for the Japanese government is to terminate its discharge plans, commit to long term storage and processing.
Duncan E. J. Currie
By Duncan E. J. Currie and Shaun Burnie
Duncan Currie is a practicing international and environmental lawyer. He has practiced international law and environmental law for nearly thirty years, and over that time has advised NGOs, corporations and governments on a wide range of environmental issues including the law of the sea, nuclear and waste issues.
Shaun Burnie is a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, with much of his time based in Japan. He has worked on nuclear issues in Asia, the former Soviet Union, Europe, North and South America and the Middle East for 35 years. He has worked against the operation of the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi reactors since 1997.